Bhutan’s Al­co­hol-Fu­eled Archery: It’s Noth­ing Like The Olympics

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - JULIE MCCARTHY (Cour­tesy: n p r)

The host of the Win­ter Olympics, South Korea, ex­cels in the sum­mer game of archery. They grabbed gold medals in all four cat­e­gories in Rio.

But the tiny Hi­malayan king­dom of Bhutan may be less than awed. Bhutan claims archery for its na­tional sport, and archers pay no heed to the plung­ing tem­per­a­tures of win­ter when they com­pete pro­pel­ling ar­rows across a field.

And if you think of archery as a deco­rous game, think again.

In a re­cent tour­na­ment in Bhutan’s cap­i­tal Thim­phu, archers com­peted with full-throated aban­don. They hooted and hollered their way through the com­pe­ti­tion, en­cour­ag­ing their team­mates, and de­rid­ing their op­po­nents, mar­ry­ing gusto and rit­ual.

With ev­ery ar­row that hits the mark, Bhutanese archers line up, face the tar­get, and break out in a tra­di­tional song and dance.

Con­tes­tants say this re­cent com­pe­ti­tion was in honor of the coun­try’s 2-year-old royal prince, whose par­ents are Bhutan’s glam­orous young king and queen.

Leg­end has it that the fa­ther of the first king used his archery skills to van­quish a gen­eral of in­vad­ing Bri­tish forces in 1864. Judg­ing by the com­pe­ti­tion un­der­way, mas­ter­ing those skills is no mean feat.

Archer Yeshey Norbu stands un­der a carved wooden canopy and through an in­ter­preter de­scribes the game. Half the mem­bers of each team shoot, while those not shoot­ing gather on the other end of the field around the small tar­get. It’s fes­tooned with stream­ers of dif­fer­ent col­ors, which archers wave back at their team­mates to sig­nal where their last ar­row landed.

Norbu ex­plains that, “You score one point when the ar­row is very close to the tar­get, at an ar­row’s dis­tance.” In­ter­est­ingly, there are ev­i­dently no ref­er­ees in Bhutan’s game. “You score 2 points when it’s a hit. You score 3 points if you hit the bull’s-eye,” he says.

The first team to reach 25 points wins the game.

The tar­get is a nar­row board, and the length of the field makes hit­ting it all the more re­mark­able. When an archer lets loose an ar­row, it must travel 140 me­ters (460 feet) — twice as long as the range used in the Olympics.

On the side­lines, archer Uy­gen Thin­ley pon­ders that dif­fer­ence. Speak­ing in a mix­ture of English and Bhutan’s na­tive Dzongkha, he bor­ders on dis­dain. When an Olympian hits the mark, Thin­ley says, “We don’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it all that much.”

“They shoot a short dis­tance,” he says. “They have coaches and ad­vanced com­pos­ite bows,” which he says “are much more ac­cu­rate than the tra­di­tional equip­ment we use.”

In a small work­shop be­side the archery field, a young man sharp­ens ar­rows. Both bows and ar­rows are fash­ioned out of the same sim­ple ma­te­rial: bam­boo. Yet, with their pow­er­ful draw and re­lease, these archers can send a small ar­row hurtling across a range that is half again as long as a foot­ball field. “I’d chal­lenge any Olympian to play our game,” Thin­ley says.

Norbu’s team is al­ready out of the com­pe­ti­tion. But he says it’s not re­ally about win­ning.

Archery tra­di­tion­ally has been the so­cial glue that binds Bhutan’s ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties — “every­body turns out,” he says. Norbu says his 13-mem­ber team was fielded from the vil­lage where he grew up.

“And when we as­sem­ble a team it is a so­cial ex­er­cise of get­ting to know each other, meet new peo­ple. And it’s much more than a game of archery.”

Vil­lage women fuel the fun, jeer­ing the other team and serv­ing spec­ta­tors and play­ers alike the lo­cal brew, known as ara.

Thin­ley clar­i­fies, say­ing, “We drink to loosen up,” plus he says im­prob­a­bly, “Some archers tend to get good aim af­ter drink­ing!”

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